A Newtonian explanation of Agile

So here's a fun little idea. I was in a great meeting a few months back, where we were using a lot of physics concepts to discuss business: acceleration, momentum, velocity, and so on. It hit me that maybe there's more to this use of language and I've been mulling it over ever since. To get right down to basics, let's look at Isaac Newtons 3 laws of motion.


So the exact law translates to:

In every material universe, the motion of a particle in a preferential reference frame Φ is determined by the action of forces whose total vanished for all times when and only when the velocity of the particle is constant in Φ. That is, a particle initially at rest or in uniform motion in the preferential frame Φ continues in that state unless compelled by forces to change it. (emphasis added)

For practical discussion, let's just stick to the part about "an object in motion stays in motion". If you look at big businesses or government organizations, it's easy to see that something akin to this principle is at work in human systems as well as physical ones. "Organizational Inertia" gets established by rules, procedures, social norms, rigid software and the desire of individuals to not rock the boat or question authority. The net result is that if you do nothing, you'll generally just keep moving in the same direction.

F = ma

Newton's second law of motion states that

The acceleration of an object as produced by a net force is directly proportional to the magnitude of the net force, in the same direction as the net force, and inversely proportional to the mass of the object.

That one's a mouthful, but Force = Mass * Acceleration also means that Acceleration = Force / Mass, which is to say that if you want something to move faster, you can either increase the net force applied to it, or you can decrease its mass. Decreasing mass in business and in life generally translates into breaking big problems into small ones so that you can move them around more easily.

Equal and Opposite Reactions

Ok, so what about the 3rd law?

To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction: or the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.

If you've ever been in a situation where you want something to change, you know that the more mass / momentum that thing has, the harder it's going to be to get it to change. This is why we want smaller problems for the sake of solving the problems. But this also means that when you try to make something change, there's going to be push back. If you've broken the problem into something small enough, the blowback to you will be less, and you'll probably keep a lot more of your sanity and emotional wellbeing.

Stopping and changing directions

So how much force does it take to stop something? Well, we can calculate it exactly with a bit of Kinematics at Newton's second law above, but if you really want to follow along, this guy can explain it better than me:


But we're in business here and we're really just going for the principal, which is that an object moving twice as fast will take four times as much stopping power. That's an exponential increase, and gives us all the more reason to check if something's working before it's plowing along like a freight train.

Why Agile Works

Agile works in software development and numerous other areas in life and business because it keeps problems small enough that your team can accelerate quickly, and stop or change direction when required. It's really fairly intuitive, and if you've tried it you've seen the advantages as well. Still, it's nice to know that Newton's got your back.